Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters unfolds in a generous and gratifying way

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Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 30

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s blockbuster summer show, unfolds in a generous and gratifying way. Subtitled The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, it reveals the impulses behind a great collection and grants us access to a number of very fine art works by Henri Matisse and his peers and predecessors. It also illuminates Matisse’s fond relationship with those unlikely early-20th-century enthusiasts of the French avant-garde, Claribel and Etta Cone.

It’s a delightful story: two wealthy and independent spinsters, based in Baltimore, befriend Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, visit Europe, are introduced to the world of art by their free-spirited pals, develop a passion for early modernism, and over the years assemble one of the most important private collections of contemporary French works in America. Having established a special bond with Matisse, they also put together the biggest private collection of his works, well, anywhere—some 500 pieces. This exhibition was jointly organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Jewish Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, which houses the Cone collection of fine and decorative art. Of the 48 works in this show, more than half are by Matisse.

Attractively designed, with lots of background images and info, including photo murals and a virtual tour of the Cone sisters’ art-laden apartments, the exhibition also spotlights works by other 19th- and 20th-century artists, from Eugène Delacroix to Pablo Picasso, along with a selection of the Belgian lace, Spanish jewellery, Persian tiles, Chinese ceramics, Japanese lacquerware, and Indian votive objects that Claribel and Etta gathered in their travels.

Collecting Matisse is designed mostly chronologically and opens with one of Etta’s first purchases, In the Grove, a circa-1888 oil painting by the American impressionist Theodore Robinson. It depicts a young woman in a long skirt, standing in a sun-dappled glade, looking intently at something in her cupped hands. What that something is, we can’t tell and aren’t told. A flower? A leaf? A prototype of the smartphone? Perhaps it’s enough to know that the subject is portrayed in a style much influenced by Claude Monet, and suggests a progressive French inclination in the Cone sisters’ taste.

Among the Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir paintings in the next gallery is an odd little landscape, The Shaded Stream at Le Puits-Noir, by Gustave Courbet. It shows a partially forested cliff side with a shallow pool of water in the foreground and, at the centre of the picture, the shadowy opening of a cave—the “black well” alluded to in the title. Courbet has manipulated the deep shadow at the centre of this otherwise naturalistic image so that it resembles the torso and hips of a woman. I read this dark form as a metaphor for the primordial source of life, but others see it as deathly, the cave opening symbolizing a portal into the underworld. Spookily, the papers for the sale of this painting were drawn up on the day of Claribel’s death, of pneumonia, in 1929.

Despite her deep mourning for her sister, reflected in her purchase of Picasso’s sorrowful Blue Period painting, Woman With Bangs, Etta continued to amass European and especially Matisse artworks. The 28 Matisses displayed here are organized in mostly thematic groupings and include paintings of nudes, still lifes, and landscapes, plus prints, drawings, and (mostly small) bronze sculptures. The entwined bronze figures of Two Negresses express the influence on Matisse of both African art and ethnographic photography.

Such works also reveal early modernism’s conflation of exoticism, eroticism, and a noble-savage notion of “the primitive”, also seen in its championing of indigenous art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. It’s curious to speculate about the appeal of this sculpture to the unmarried Cone sisters, who acquired a large number of painted, drawn, and sculpted female nudes, not only by Matisse but also by Picasso and Renoir.

The Matisse paintings in the show—the big draw here—range from an early fauvist still life, Yellow Pottery From Provence, to the large, late, and radically flattened Reclining Nude. In the gallery titled Sensuality and Surface, framed examples of Cone-collection textiles, such as a richly embroidered, 19th-century hanging from Uzbekistan, are juxtaposed with Matisse paintings of the 1920s and ’30s, executed while he was living in the south of France. As typified by Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, a view of Matisse’s apartment in Nice, and Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard, in which a female model, adorned in harem pants and ankle bracelets, is posed against a crowd of “Oriental” carpets and fabrics, many of these paintings are focused on colour, pattern, texture, and, again, a notion of exoticism. They also reflect a desire by Matisse, later in his career, to re-create his experiences of travelling in Morocco. And in this well-chosen show, his experiences are our experiences.

Comments (2) Add New Comment
Hazlit
While this period in art has been done and even overdone it's refreshing to see something in Vancouver that isn't contemporary. Wouldn't it be nice if the VAG could push the boundaries enough to give us say "Art from the Ancient Kingdoms of Benin" or some such that might actually teach us something!
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Goldorak
A good exhibition generally. Besides failing to offer 360 views of most sculptures -sculpture is 3D art, hello?-, the most ridiculous part of the exhibition is the last room, the "Matisse in Vancouver" displaying a handful of very weak pieces obviously belonging to some local collectors who likely went for the safety of the signature, unlike the pioneering sisters. It felt like "we too can do it..." highlighting the dreadful cultural void of Vancouver's public collection and the constant need to systematically appeal to the supposedly taste and culture lacking southern neighbors according to the usual anti US rants.
Emily Carr's work appeared a true light, offering a Canadian period counterpoint to the European master.
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